The horrors of the Waco, Texas fertilizer plant explosion are far-reaching, with current reports claiming that at least 12 bodies have been identified and as many as 150 locals have been injured. Yet there is another danger that may be even greater to the locals of Waco than the initial explosion. This is the possibility of anhydrous ammonia exposure.
Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless, highly irritating gas that has a sharp, suffocating scent. Those who inhale the dangerous gas typically experience a burning in their eyes, nose, or throat. When a person is exposed to high doses of ammonia, it can result in coughing and choking. At extremely high concentrations, the ammonia can cause a victim's throat to swell and burn the lungs. As a result, the person who inhaled the gaseous chemical may die of suffocation. Eye exposure to anhydrous ammonia can also cause serious corneal burns and eventually lead to blindness. The severity of symptoms always depends on the degree of exposure.
Anhydrous ammonia is ammonia that is not mixed with any water and is typically in a gaseous form. The ammonia is a main component in plant fertilizers. Because of this, authorities in Waco are concerned that the tragic explosion which occurred on Wednesday may result in toxic fumes that will harm the locals who survived the blast. The Dallas Morning News claims that the facility stored as much as 54,000 pounds of anhydrous ammonia on site. Half of the town's residents (about 2,700 people) have been evacuated as a precaution because of the release of ammonia. The gas is a strong-smelling compound, so it is easily detectable.
A chemical safety consultant for Advanced Chemical Safety told TIME that the ammonia is more dangerous in an anhydrous form, because it has not been diluted. In addition to eye nose and throat irritation, anhydrous ammonia can result in breathing difficulties, chest pain, wheezing, pulmonary edema, pink frothy sputum, burns, blisters, or frostbite. The compound is also a key ingredient in the production of the illegal narcotic methamphetamine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people are most at-risk to ammonia exposure when they are near a production plant or storage facility where the gas has been released. The local Fire Department in the town of West is monitoring the air for presence of the gas. The Waco Police Department tweeted an updated on April 18th announcing that the air quality is "not an issue" at this point. The police still admitted that there were previous reports that the ammonia may have leaked from the plant, and it is being dealt with as a highly toxic gas. Evacuations and other precautionary measures have been put in place.
Some are concerned that the fires following the explosion and the rains may have contained some of the ammonia that was released from the plant. Still, representatives from Advanced Chemical Safety say that much of the gas probably burned off in those fires because ammonia is flammable. The gas that was burned would dissipate into the atmosphere. Chemists also say that the rain may have helped the town of West by flushing out the air and diluting the ammonia so that it will actually act as a fertilizer on the ground.
Those who were exposed to ammonia at the plant or were near the initial blast site may still want to seek medical treatment if they experience eye irritation or severe breathing complications. Those with asthma may also want to seek medical attention because the ammonia can severely affect those with this condition. The Director of Population Health at the North Shore University Hospital says that symptoms may resolve without any treatment in mild cases. He also says that because of ammonia's strong smell and immediate symptoms, it is easy to know if you have been exposed.
Those that do suffer a medical condition from the ammonia exposure need to head to a local hospital for treatment. As well, anyone who smelled the sharp odor may want to head to a medical facility for a check-up, as this indicates that you may have experienced exposure. The U.S. Chemical Safety Board sent a large investigative team to the scene of the explosion to continue checking for ammonia exposure and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is also monitoring the air quality to make sure that this is not a sudden and dangerous elevation in ammonia levels. Talk to a fertilizer plant explosion lawyer at Arnold & Itkin LLP today if you want more information.